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Ophir Pass

July 1-5, 1994

 

 

Breath-Taking Bridal Veil Falls - July, 1999.  The smaller fall on the left, emerging since the 1980's, is a result of the deteriorating seal of the flume (visible in the picture) into the rock.  The building above the falls is a power plant built in the early 20th century.

As we turned north on State Highway 145 toward Telluride, the town of Ophir and its namesake pass high in the distance behind still danced vividly in the rear view mirror of our minds. At highway speeds the twenty or so miles dissolved quickly under the watchful eye of Lizard Head, a landmark rock outcropping to the distant west. We reached the intersection, turned east, and were soon cruising down Colorado Avenue in Telluride, looking for a campground.

It was Independence Day and the town was full of tourists. At the suggestion of a local policeman we decided to brave it out in the overloaded city campground. We crossed Bear Creek, fed by the breath-taking 425-foot Bridal Veil Falls, found a parking space with some difficulty, and quickly identified a surprisingly secluded spot among the trees overlooking the stream and a grassy picnic area of some size.

Once our tent was erected, my soul mate prepared a deluxe supper from our camping supplies. While eating we settled into watching the ongoing city fireworks display, which migrated into the campground toward the end, amid hoots and honking of horns, as the enthusiastic visitors shot their own skyward and at everyone else. We finished up our supper with firecrackers going off around us, and rockets lighting up the trees and the evening sky in a celebrative mass-confusion that I have not experienced since childhood.

As we bedded down for the night, my soul mate broke into the worst case of cold chills I have ever seen -- shivering and shaking for almost an hour despite two sweat suits, several thicknesses of additional clothing, and envelopment in both sleeping bags. For almost an hour, all attempts at warming her failed. As I coddled her in my arms, I knew full well the cause of her distress, for there was a time earlier in the day when I could have prevented it -- but I had failed in exercising the level of protection that was necessary.
 

 
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Phoenix to Ophir

I'd left work at 1:00 pm that Friday afternoon, and managed to have everything waiting when my wife arrived home at 2:30. Picking up a lunch to go, we were out of town before rush hour and managed to reach Canyon de Chelly and its campground for a late check-in and a good night's rest.

A Glimpse of Canyon de Chelly - July, 1994

Underway before noon on Saturday, July 2, we'd pressed on to Lukachukai, braved the abrupt and barely-passable climb up and over the rugged Chuska Mountains in our Honda CRX, and descended into Red Rock before crossing the Arizona border toward Shiprock, New Mexico.

By now, it was getting late in the afternoon, and interested in finding a suitable camping spot before dark, we were keeping our eyes pealed. The massive Shiprock that jutted 2,200 feet out of the otherwise flat terrain, and its mile-long "ribbon candy" formations, had always been an attraction to us, and observing a lone pickup parked on the rise at the base of the main formation, we were drawn to this remote and beautiful area as a perfect place to stay the night. We turned off and followed the winding, primitive road toward the Rock.

But distances can be deceiving, and after a mile we decided there was no reason to continue any further since we would only have to retrace our path in the morning when we resumed our trip. We stopped at a branch in the road in the gopher-riddled lowlands about half a mile from the Rock, pulled our tent out of the rear hatch, and proceeded to set it up adjacent to the road. Unfortunately, there was much more wind than we had realized from inside the car; and this, combined with an inability to stake the tent to earth in the dust pockets between gopher holes, lead us nowhere. A fifteen-minute struggle in the spongy dust sinking into the ground past our ankles proved useless, and we ultimately aborted the idea of camping in the area.

The Durango-Bound D&RGW - July, 1994

Throwing the now incredibly dirty tent back into the car without successfully folding it, we headed back to the highway and hurried on toward the city of Shiprock and Highway 4911 north, where we picked up supper at an unlikely cafe before proceeding into Colorado to Cortez.

Once in Cortez, we stopped for the second and last time ever at a KOA campground. With no unoccupied camping spaces left we opted for one of six or eight very cute miniature log cabins they had erected for the purpose and set up our cots next to the built-in double-decker bed with ancient mattresses of dubious origin.

Next morning, July 3, I made the mistake of attempting a shower in the exceedingly dirty bathhouse -- strewn on the lavatories with toothpaste drippings, hair shavings, and used razor blades; and on the floor with toilet paper, dirt and soap scum. As we were running late, I was the only occupant -- and immediately after soaping myself down, the water quit. I waited -- but after what seemed like half an hour (but probably was no more than ten minutes), and with no visitors showing up, was forced to take matters into my own hands. Picking my way barefooted across the dirty floor between TP and other unidentifiable drippings, I stood at the door in my birthday suit covered with drying soap, screaming my plight to the world. After another five minutes a campground employee came to my rescue. The water, it seems, had been shut off for a water system repair -- without checking the bathhouse.

Shortly thereafter, the water was turned back on and I was able to complete my shower. We headed east on 160, eating breakfast from our instant goodies bag, and in another hour we were passing through Durango. Turning north on highway 550, we continued to Purgatory, a popular skiing resort where there is a narrow well-kept national campground in the pines just above the highway. It was a welcome stay after our KOA experience -- with no shower house, and therefore no filth. We relaxed, enjoyed the mountain air and pine smell, and stuffed our stomachs with the very tasty canned food that is only palatable on such a camping trip.

On Monday, July 4, we arose somewhat late again, procrastinated as long as possible in the overpoweringly beautiful surroundings, and then pushed on north via Lime Creek Road and its beautiful lily-lined beaver ponds2. Doing so, we bypassed the heavy grades of 10,640-foot Coal Bank Hill and 10,899 foot Molas Pass, arriving just in time to watch the D&RGW narrow-gauge leaving Silverton, from high on the side of Molas Mountain. We drove into town for ice cream, and then continued north via the Million-Dollar Highway3, over 11,075 foot Red Mountain Pass and past Bear Falls to Ouray, a popular tourist town at 7,700 feet that rests in a box canyon accessible through a narrow slit from the rolling flatlands to the north. We then turned around and came back toward Silverton to what we thought was the Ophir Pass road, and turned in4.

Home, Sweet Home, Purgatory Campground - July, 1994


 
 
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Telluride Morning

Eventually my soul mate's symptoms subsided. With every reason to believe the worst was behind us, the best thing to do now was rest. Exhausted, it didn't take us long to drop into a deep, satisfying sleep; and thus we did until morning.

Tuesday, July 5, was the last day of our mini-vacation. When I awakened, my soul mate greeted me with a loving smile and a lavish breakfast of freshly prepared eggs and ham, hash browns, toast, jelly and coffee. While I sat there devouring a banquet breakfast my wife and soul mate was victimized once again by the vicious sickness that had attacked her the night before.

For several minutes she suffered the most debilitating stomach cramps I have ever seen. As she doubled over in pain punctuated by vomiting, the joys we experienced the day before in the thin alpine air of 13,100 foot Ophir Pass danced in my psyche like a wicked dream. I had become well aware of the dangers of over-exertion in the mountain passes of my first life; how could I have failed her so miserably? 5
 

 
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Doing Ophir Pass in a Honda CRX

Mon Jul 4 - This was my soul mate's first visit to Little Switzerland. I had not been off the pavement in the area for nearly twenty years; but I knew Ophir, and I remembered it as being of almost passenger car quality6a -- a perspective developed in my first life from behind the wheel of a 4WD International Scout on many roads of the area. And I wanted badly to show my wife at least one jeep trail while we were there -- to give her the thrill of seeing how the mountains looked from above. The decision to do Ophir in the CRX therefore wasn't too much of a stretch. It seemed a safe enough drive for a veteran 4-wheeler -- with a little care -- even in a CRX heavily loaded with camping equipment.

A Picturesque Tree Stump, Purgatory Campsite - July, 1994

Had we turned at the "Ophir" sign on the highway, we would have had a bridge to cross, among other things. The road we turned west on crossed a meadow, forded a stream, then turned south and quickly degraded to 4WD quality before taking to the low side of a mountain and finally reaching the real Ophir Pass road about an hour later -- half a mile from the highway. It was a terrible road for a low-slung passenger car. It took a lot of perspiration, but we saw our only Marmot of the trip on that road, making it well worth the difficulty.

After reaching the main Ophir road we turned west and proceeded toward the pass. The car climbed well at first; the going was slow, but the automatic pulled it -- for a time.

It was a warm day, and the beauty of the terrain was unsurpassable. Soon the valley to our left dropped away as the peaks beyond came into view. Looking down we could see hidden green meadows and lush mountain foliage, and a tree stump or two -- possibly where a tree had been damaged by lightning -- that were old and weathered, and very picturesque. We stopped to photograph one.

Looking back, we could see a red-topped mountain capped in iron and rust beyond the lower end of the road and the highway we'd left behind. Then as our altitude increased another came into view, and another; and by the time we were approaching the pass we could look back to the east and see five red mountains lined up in a row, none of which are visible from the Silverton-Ouray highway7.

The road gradually became steeper, and about the time we reached the tree line the grade reached a point where the CRX would no longer pull its own weight. It rolled to a stop, the engine still running under heavy load and the transmission absorbing all of the torque, a condition that will destroy an automatic in only a few minutes. The road was too steep.

Iron Ore-Covered Mountain Slopes; taken taken from Imogene Pass - July, 1999

My soul mate temporarily alleviated the problem by getting out of the car to walk; but not for long. Soon we were dutifully following a practice we have long observed on the Mexican playa -- unloading ice chest, suitcases, tent and other paraphernalia, backing up, and taking a run at it. But eventually even this didn't work. I backed up several more times and rushed the grade, but to no avail.

My father's words from a few weeks before came rushing back into my consciousness.

"Don't try it," he had admonished.

While I pondered these words of inherent wisdom, my wife reviewed our dilemma.

"Why don't you try it with the refrigeration turned off," she suggested.

I sheepishly turned it off, and then backed up for another try. The vehicle cleared the grade, coming to a rest on a short flatter stretch of road. Giving the car a rest, we retrieved and repacked our load, then resumed our journey.

We went on for a time, but once my soul mate had gotten out of the car it was hard to keep her inside. She enjoyed the walk too much in the warm sunshine and cool mountain air.

There were rocks on the road, and I could dodge most of them with the car; but since she was walking anyway, I asked her to roll a particularly pesky one out of the way for me -- which she quickly did. And then there were others; and soon she was moving anything and everything out of the way whether it could be dodged or not -- anything that the car might scrape on.

She had never been at this altitude before, and she was in a euphoric state on this sunny afternoon in the thin alpine atmosphere. She ran ahead of the car and up the side of the mountain through the tundra -- dancing along through the delicate wildflowers and miniature ferns with arms outstretched. She was enjoying herself like never before; and she was beautiful, her deep ebony skin radiating her euphoria back into the atmosphere from which it was fed.

Thus we moved on up the road, and soon cleared the top.

There was a significant amount of snow lying in the cradle of the pass, which we just had to stop and play in for twenty minutes or so. While we were there someone stopped and asked if we needed help, but we explained that we were letting the car rest while we contemplated the decent.

Eventually ready to continue, we waited for two vehicles coming up the narrow road to clear the gap, then plunged down the west side. We managed to make better time on the heavy downgrade, although breaking was required much of the time even in low gear. Although my soul mate now rode most of the distance, she continued to jump out of the car frequently to move rocks as we slowly progressed toward the town of Ophir, leaving the red mountains behind.

There was much more snow on the western grades, and there were occasional difficulties along the way -- some snowy spots in the road that required negotiation just to get through the bad ruts. Then we had to unload the car again to negotiate a short snow covered uphill stretch.

We passed through a great natural rockslide on a northern slope, and between and a couple of narrow standing rocks -- landmarks, even from a distance -- beside the road.

But there continued to be a few rocks that required dodging, and one or two that we couldn't get around. My soul mate remained euphoric; she would leap out of the car when we approached such a rock, her dark skin alive in the afternoon sunshine, run to it and push it out of the way.

Although Ophir is a narrow, basically one lane road, it of course supports traffic moving in either direction. There is an unwritten protocol for passing on such mountain grades: The downhill vehicle, especially when on the inside against the mountain, is the one that must pull over, put two wheels in the ditch or on the side of the mountain, and stop until the other car has passed. We had already met two earlier cars under such conditions, and now a third was coming up the road -- a Ford Bronco.

He stopped and rolled down his window.

"How's the road?" he asked.

"Fine; you won't have any trouble at all."

"You have any trouble getting your CRX over the pass?"

"Yeah, a little; but we made it by moving a few rocks," I said.

He looked at the rock my wife just moved, at her, then back at me.

"Where are you from?" he asked.

"We're from Phoenix. We haven't been up here before without a four-wheel drive vehicle. We just had to try it."

Summoning up his best gravelly Rochester voice, he nodded his head in the direction of my wife and addressed me.

"Well, you're ahead of me, boss!"

It sounded like something straight out of the old Jack Benny radio show8, but it wasn't funny in or out of context. As I struggled to recover, the Ugly American of Ophir Pass shifted his vehicle into gear and receeded into the grades behind us.

We reached the tree line, and soon we were driving on a reasonably flat road of black humus through a forest of Quaking Aspens9. Not long after that we passed through Ophir, a ghost town of early mining days10. At the highway just beyond Ophir, we turned right and soon were cruising down a main street of Telluride looking for the city campground, our 1991 Honda CRX apparently no worse for the wear6b,11.

 
July 1-5, 1994

Entrance to Monument Valley, Kayenta - July, 1994


 
 
Navigation

1Or highway 666, depending upon which roadmap you look at.

2Any mention of the Lime Creek Road lily ponds must be accompanied by a very serious warning: There are many more lily ponds than there appear to be at first glance -- cascading down the gentle slope of the mountainside for miles just out of site of the road. As each pond looks like the next, hikers in the area can easily become disoriented and loose their sense of direction, making it difficult to return to the road and their vehicle. Worse, the time lost in returning can easily slip into the darkness of the evening, making it even more difficult.

Church Rock, Kayenta - July, 1994

3The "Million-Dollar Highway," popularly believed to have been named for the cost of blasting the roadbed into the rugged terrain of the area known as "Little Switzerland," in actuality derives its name from the low grade gold ore present in its road bed.

4The Ophir Pass turnoff is near the bottom of a canyon a few miles south of Red Mountain Pass. Watch for the sign.

5It was classic sunstroke brought on by over-exertion and too much sunshine in the thin atmosphere of high altitude.

6a|6bNegotiation of Ophir Pass in a passenger car is strenuously not advised by the author. Survival of the CRX on the steep grades is probably due in large part to the 4-wheeling experience of the driver in the sands of the Mexican playa, who went out of his way to avoid prolonged abuse of the automatic transmission at critical points in the excursion.

7There is one magnificent red mountain very visible from the top of Red Mountain Pass on the Durango-Silverton highway, but it does not appear to be one of these.

Elephant's Feet; Red Lake, Navajoland - July, 1973

8Rochesterís character on the Jack Benny show was played by Eddie Anderson.

9Quaking Aspens are named for the way their leaves appear to shimmy in even the lightest breeze.

10Ophir has been slowly returning to life since the late 1970's and is now a thriving village of some twenty or so modern houses of early 1900's design, plus one church.

11Before leaving Telluride on July 5, we replenished our gasoline and ice. We headed home via Rico, Delores, Cortez, Kayenta, Elephant's Feet, Tuba City and Flagstaff, stopping at Four Corners Monument and Dinosaur Tracks. My soul mate bought a pair of earrings at Dinosaur Tracks, but she didn't feel fully recovered from her ordeal for another two days.
 

 
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